A digital nanny for all those home PCs

November 9, 2007: 8:57 AM ET

New Home Server aims to bring big-business technology to the home -- but it will be a tough sell

HP MediaSmart Server
HP's MediaSmart Server runs Microsoft's new Windows Home Server operating system. Image from Microsoft.

Yes, it has come to this. Now that consumers have multi-PC homes, wireless networks, and thousands of digital files floating around, they need a computer whose sole purpose is to keep an eye on the other computers.

At least, that's Microsoft's (MSFT) pitch for a new class of machines built to run its new Windows Home Server operating system. Home Server products became available for pre-order this week from retailers including Best Buy (BBY), Circuit City (CC) and Amazon (AMZN), but it remains to be seen whether mainstream computer shoppers will buy the idea.

The concept is geeky, but the need for a home server is real, as anyone who has lost files to a hard drive meltdown will attest. The promise of the home server is that it will deftly perform many useful tasks that most computer users find too troublesome to do on our own.

For example, it will automatically back up every file on all the Windows computers in your home (so long as they're running Windows XP or higher). The home server will also allow you to use a web browser to access files that are on your home computers while you're on the road, and even remotely share them with friends and family. All the while it also watches out for the other PCs in its network, making sure they have the latest security software updates.

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Microsoft says Home Server will also share files with computers running Apple's (AAPL) Mac OS, but some features, like automatic backup, won't work. (Mac users might not be too interested anyway; the latest version of the Mac OS comes with automatic backup features that the company has promised will eventually work across all Macs on a network.)

The computer industry is tentatively embracing the home server concept. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) will have one of the first systems, the HP MediaSmart Server, which uses a processor from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and up to a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of storage. Microsoft said a 500-gigabyte version will have a suggested retail price of $599, the terabyte version will be $749, and they will ship at the end of the month. There will be other systems too, including one from hard drive maker Seagate (STX) and systems with Intel (INTC) processors.

Practical though it may be, the concept of a "server" is still foreign to many everyday PC users -- and that fact will make it difficult for Microsoft and its partners to market the thing. In the business world, servers are used to centrally manage important data and programs, but most office workers never need to come in contact with them. In fact, servers typically get mentioned only when there's a problem with them -- as in, "The e-mail server is down," or, "Some important files just disappeared off of the server."

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Velocity Micro NetMagix HomeServer
High-performance computer provider Velocity Micro plans to offer its NetMagix HomeServer for about $899 by year's end. Image: Microsoft

Despite any marketing challenges, some tech reviewers seem to love the early versions of Windows Home Server. Though he found some glitches, Michael Gartenberg, analyst with JupiterResearch, wrote on his blog this summer that the home server is "one of those things that you think you don't need until you start using and the more you use it, the more you wonder how you lived without it."

But I have my doubts that mainstream shoppers will feel the same. Even for people who know what they are, the corporate server can be an intimidating concept -- so it's probably the wrong metaphor to use with consumers. At work, we need full-time IT workers to keep those mysterious servers working right – we come home to escape those sorts of complexities and hassles. That being the case, I doubt most people will feel good about going out and buying a $700 computer to bring home and put in a closet, no matter how fine a job it does as a digital minder for the other home PCs.

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Even so, there are ways that Microsoft could tweak the home server concept that might make it easier for consumers to embrace.

For example, I could imagine mainstream consumers buying this kind of product if it were billed as a sort of TiVo (TIVO) on steroids – a supercharged version of the PCs that run Microsoft's Media Center software. As a high-end home theater component that also happens to manage the networked computers, it could be a fun addition to the household. I could also imagine Microsoft one day offering many of Home Server's features as an online service rather than as a physical product. Though an online service wouldn't be a practical way to back up software programs and videos, it could be a fine way to store documents, photos, and even audio files.

For now, though, geeks everywhere can rejoice that capable home servers seem to be arriving -- even if the whole idea of PCs managing other PCs is a bit scary for most home people.

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